The conventional wisdom, as spouted on talk shows and op-ed pages, is that the public is just as sick and tired of "the White House in Crisis" as the commentariat professes to be. I for one am not tired. I used to be, but now that this whole mess has turned the corner and is moving toward some form of catharsis, I'm getting my second wind.
But I am sick. I'm sick of the way poll-quoting has become a substitute not only for debating but also for thinking. Just as we are being forced to accustom ourselves to polling as a substitute for leadership, we now have to get used to politicians awash in the facts, the law and, presumably, their sense of right and wrong, reaching -- when asked to render the most cursory opinion -- for the only lifeboat in sight: the latest polling data.
"There is no stampede of support from the Democrats toward the President," MSNBC's John Gibson said to The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Roy Romer. "Oh, but John, look at the President's 70 percent approval rating," protested Romer.
Ditto Ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson. "I know there's all this talk in Washington," he said on "Fox News Sunday", "but the American people in a poll today (give him) 66 percent job approval, which is one of the highest of any President." And Rep. Nancy Pelosi, (D-Calif.) cornered by George Will on the question of why Bill Clinton is fit to lead, and Bob Packwood wasn't, shot back: "I continue to be impressed by the wisdom of the American people."
It is interesting how selective is politicians' admiration for the wisdom of the American people. I don't remember, for example, Pelosi being overly impressed with the public's wisdom when the majority of Californians approved of Proposition 187 against illegal immigration. Or of Proposition 209 against affirmative action. Nor did the fact that the majority of the public approved of the President's trip to China prevent her from exercising leadership in opposing it.
"We are elected to lead by listening to our own judgment," Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) told me, "not by reading the opinion polls to test the political winds." And this definitely reflects the view of the founders. Representative democracy was intended, in Madison's words, to "refine and enlarge the public views." If we wanted politicians to slavishly obey opinion polls, why not follow Ross Perot's suggestion and move to a system of direct democracy with the electorate voting on every issue?
The modern variation, governing through polls and focus groups, exaggerates both the significance of a daily blurry snapshot of public opinion and its predictive value. "I have to smile when I see how much weight is being put on polling numbers," Dick Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's pollster, told me. "Especially in the middle of a crisis, approval numbers are about as stable as feathers in a tornado."
Almost as bad as depending on Polls as an alternative to reasoning is the authority ascribed to them with no regard to how easily they fluctuate depending on the wording of the questions, or even the order in which they are asked. In the latest ABC/Washington Post poll taken on Aug. 19, the President's favorability was 39 percent when the question followed another one about the First Lady's favorability. It jumped to 56 percent on Aug. 21 when no question about the current scandal was asked before it, and it dropped to 45 percent on Aug. 23 when a question about the scandal preceded it. These wild oscillations show how easy it is to manipulate polling results, especially given the well-established tendency of respondents to give the socially acceptable answer.
Pollster John Zogby, who only polls likely voters, found the President's favorability free falling after his speech to the nation. "The fall was arrested," Zogby told me, "when he ordered the military action, but among likely voters, the numbers of those who think it is time for him to leave office are now between 51 percent and 65 percent depending on what degree of offense is finally established."
The ultimate irony is that this most poll-driven President had to discover the hard way that even though he fed back to the public what they were telling the pollsters -- about privacy, about wanting the investigation to end, about not caring -- they didn't like the sum total of what they heard.
So the main impact of our obsession with polls in the current crisis has been to turn otherwise intelligent representatives of the people into wooden dummies stammering whatever the pollster du jour is feeding them. Why not drop the middlemen -- and middlewomen -- and put the pollsters completely in charge?
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